Saudi Crown Prince Approved Plan to “Capture or Kill” Columnist Jamal Khashoggi, According to Declassified U.S. Report
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as seen in the 2019 FRONTLINE documentary "The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia." Prince Mohammed approved an operation to “capture or kill” columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a declassified U.S. intelligence report released publicly Feb. 26.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to “capture or kill” Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a declassified report released publicly on Feb. 26 by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reveals.
“We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of [Mohammed] bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” the report says. “Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”
The assessment named 21 people that the ODNI said it had “high confidence” had “participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of [Mohammed] bin Salman,” adding, “We do not know whether these individuals knew in advance that the operation would result in Khashoggi’s death.”
The Trump administration had resisted releasing the assessment. At her Senate hearing last month prior to being confirmed to serve as the head of the U.S. intelligence community, President Joe Biden’s Director of National Intelligence pick, Avril Haines, committed to releasing it. Saudi Arabia is regarded as a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The day of the report’s release, Biden’s State Department announced “visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.” The U.S Treasury announced sanctions on Saudi Arabia’s former deputy head of general intelligence and the kingdom’s Rapid Intervention Force. No actions specific to bin Salman himself were announced.
In a statement after the assessment’s release, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership,” that the conclusions in the report were “unjustified and inaccurate,” and that “this crime was committed by a group of individuals that have transgressed all pertinent regulations and authorities of the agencies where they were employed.”
The murder, which took place after Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018, shocked the world. The 2019 FRONTLINE documentary The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia raised tough questions about how the murder could have been a “rogue operation,” carried out without Prince Mohammed’s knowledge, as Saudi officials maintain.
When Khashoggi disappeared, the Saudi government initially said he had left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul alive and that it had no information on his whereabouts. Days after the disappearance, evidence emerged that Khashoggi had been killed and dismembered by a team of 15 Saudi agents who flew in and out of Istanbul on government-owned planes. His remains have yet to be located.
After several weeks, the Saudis acknowledged Khashoggi’s death but insisted the killing had been the result of a “brawl and a fist fight” and was a “rogue operation.” Days later, the official Saudi story shifted again: They admitted there was evidence the killing had been premeditated but maintained from then on that it was a “rogue operation.”
But as the FRONTLINE documentary recounted, of the 15 Saudi agents believed to have carried out Khashoggi’s killing, five are reported to have worked under Prince Mohammed’s now-former aide Saud al-Qahtani. And an alleged ringleader on the ground was a member of the crown prince’s personal security detail.
Several weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, called the killing “heinous” and promised that it would be investigated. In the documentary, FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith pressed Prince Mohammed personally on how the murder could have happened without him knowing about it. In his first comments on his role in the matter, the Saudi leader told Smith: “It happened under my watch. I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch.”
He went on to insist he had no prior knowledge of the murder, saying: “Accidents happen. Can you imagine? We have 20 million people. We have 3 million government employees. I am not Google or a supercomputer to watch over 3 million.”
“And they can take one of your planes?” Smith asked, referring to the 15-person team said to have been behind Khashoggi’s death and dismemberment that flew in and out of Istanbul on jets owned by the Saudi government.
“I have officials, ministers to follow things, and they’re responsible, they have the authority to do that,” Prince Mohammed said.
In a 2019 interview with FRONTLINE, Norman Roule, a former CIA official, said high-level Saudi contacts told him the Khashoggi operation had been a rendition (a tactic involving forcibly bringing someone to another country for interrogation). “Well, I have stated that I believe it’s very unlikely [Prince Mohammed] did not know of at least a rendition,” Roule said.
Another former CIA official, Bruce Reidel, commented on reports that a member of the team that killed Khashoggi had made a call that day saying, in effect, “tell your boss the deed was done.”
“The phone number that was being called in Riyadh was the crown prince’s office,” Riedel told Smith. “Doesn’t get much better than that. If you call the White House Situation Room, I come to the conclusion the White House knows what’s going on.”
In addition to examining the evidence linking Prince Mohammed to the events surrounding Khashoggi’s murder, and how Saudi officials could have come to the conclusion that it was a “rogue operation” before the kingdom’s investigation was complete, the documentary delved into the role of al-Qahtani. The now-former aide to Prince Mohammed was accused of overseeing Khashoggi’s murder but was never formally charged. He was named in the ODNI assessment released Feb. 26, which noted that al-Qahtani “claimed publicly in mid-2018 that he did not make decisions without the Crown Prince’s approval.”
As the film recounted, a high-level adviser to Prince Mohammed told FRONTLINE that prosecuting someone so close to the crown prince would be politically disruptive. Al-Qahtani was cleared in a statement from the Saudi public prosecutor in December 2019. Following a secretive trial, the prosecutor announced in September 2020 that eight people had received prison sentences for their roles in the killing.
Initially a supporter of the crown prince, Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who had moved to the U.S., became critical over time of the prince’s handling of domestic dissent. After being named in 2015 as the heir to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Prince Mohammed implemented widely praised economic and social reforms but also moved to consolidate power using methods that included brutal government crackdowns on activists, critics and dissidents.
Starting in September 2017, Khashoggi would write column after column for the Washington Post calling attention to perceived abuses of power by Prince Mohammed and the Saudi government.
The columns continued up until Khashoggi’s murder the following fall.
This story has been updated.